“Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.”
– Luke 7:11-17
In early May, I was incredibly moved by the speech given by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as she denounced the North Carolina bathroom law. (If you haven’t already listened to her speech, I highly recommend that you do.)
After announcing that the Dept. of Justice was filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of North Carolina because the bathroom law “create[s] state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals,” she stated: “This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”
While her statement was particularly powerful, as Loretta continued to boldly claim this was a civil rights issue, what blew so many people away (and brought me to tears) was her closing statement as she spoke directly to the transgender community: “Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Dept. of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
LGBTQI advocate Bob Witeck explained that Loretta’s closing remarks were so important because LGBTQI Americans are “used to living invisibly.” Yet, here Loretta Lynch is going “out of her way to tell them that she (and the Obama Administration) see them. That they are not invisible.” That their lives do – in fact – matter. And that they are going to commit to doing the justice work of fighting for full inclusion and equality.
And Mara Keisling, Executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality said that this was an empowering statement because Loretta Lynch was acknowledging “that we are people…” and to many transgender people, esp. in North Carolina, that acknowledgement is needed. “The relief is just almost overwhelming,” Mara explained. “To just be so dehumanized [by the state of North Carolina] for six weeks now and then to be so humanized by the attorney general – it’s just amazing.”
“We see you, we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
These words are similar to the words we hear Jesus speaking in our Gospel text this morning.
It’s an emotional scene in Luke.
Our attention is first centered on a large, excited crowd surrounding Jesus. To their amazement, Jesus has just healed the centurion’s servant in the town of Capernaum. And so this large crowd – along with Jesus’ disciples – follow Jesus, hoping to see what he will do next.
As Jesus and his entourage get close to a town called Nain and approach the town gate, we see another large crowd passing through the gate. But unlike the first crowd, this crowd from the town is weeping and grieving, as they follow the leaders of the group who are carrying the body of a man who had passed away.
This second crowd is participating in a funeral procession. But this is not just any funeral procession. As the author of Luke quickly points out, this dead man was the son of a woman who was poor, powerless, and on the complete margins of society: he was the son of a widow. And – as Luke emphasizes – the dead man was this widow’s only son. Luke’s earliest readers would have known what the funeral procession meant for this first century widow. Since women in first century Palestine were considered property of men and depended economically and socially on first their father, then their husband, and if widowed – their sons, this widow was not only facing another incredible loss in her life. But the death of her only son left her completely destitute without a home, job, health care, and if she received no charity from the community – she would be left with no way to survive.
She was now completely invisible.
No wonder she was sobbing as she passed Jesus at the entrance gate to Nain.
Now, it would have made sense for Jesus, this first century rabbi and his followers to just keep going on their way… For, they had important places to be and important things to do. And why would they notice this widow in the middle of a large crowd in the midst of a funeral procession, anyway? She would not only have been lost in the crowd, but she was also invisible to the world.
However, this widow was not invisible to Jesus. Maybe it was the volume of her weeping and wailing or the desperation in her eyes that caught Jesus’ attention. But whatever it was, as the two large crowds converge, Jesus sees the widow and he stops what he is doing. He has compassion for her: “Do not weep,” he urges her.
Then in front of both large crowds, he does the unimaginable. With no concern for his own reputation, he touches the bier – or the corpse – an act that was forbidden by the law because the corpse was deemed unclean. Then, speaking to the corpse, he says: “Young man, I say to you: Rise!” and then the dead man sits up and starts speaking. And as Jesus gives the man to his mother, the hope of this once destitute and invisible widow for a future and a holistic life has been resurrected.
It is as if Jesus is saying to her: “I see you, I stand with you, and I will do everything I can to protect you going forward.”
Now, I think it is important to note that this kind of compassion Jesus has is not just a light-hearted sympathy for this woman. The Greek word for compassion used here comes from a Greek noun that means the kidneys, the bowels, the heart, the lungs, the liver: the internal organs. In other words, when Jesus sees this widow in her grief and desperation, his entire insides – his guts – churn. They overflow with concern, compassion, and love… for her.
And this is not the only time Jesus stops what he is doing and performs a miracle for people who are invisible – people who are on the margins – because he has a deep, internal compassion for them. When he sees the sick, he is moved with compassion and heals them. When he sees the hungry, he is moved with compassion and feeds them. When blind beggars cry out to him for help, he sees them, is moved with compassion for them, and gives them sight.
“I see you, I stand with you, and I will do everything I can to protect you going forward.”
And thus is with the grieving, destitute widow in our text in Luke.
Here, at the entrance gate to Nain, Jesus sees this invisible woman for who she truly is. Jesus denounces the labels and images that society has placed upon her and instead he sees and affirms the imago dei – the image of God that she was created in before she even left her mother’s womb. Jesus sees and acknowledges her beloved-ness and her humanity – which society has failed to see in her. And seeing this widow in all her pain and in her deep desperation, Jesus is moved with compassion from his most inward being, and he does what he can in that moment to liberate her from the bondage that society has placed upon her.
“I see you, I stand with you, and I will do everything I can to protect you going forward.”
This is the good news that we have in Jesus Christ.
This is the good news that Jesus proclaimed to the first century widow grieving the death of her son outside of Nain and this is the good news Jesus proclaims to us today. He is our loving God in the flesh who sees the unseen. Who affirms our humanity and beloved-ness when the world denies it. Who – when he sees us in all our pain and desperation – his very insides churn and he is moved with deep compassion and love for us. He is our Savior who places his concern for our well-being far above the laws of the religious. He is our advocate who would risk his own reputation in order to ensure that our basic needs are met so that all God’s children can live holistically, as God created us to live.
And because as followers of Jesus we are the eyes, the ears, the hands, and the feet of Christ in the world, Jesus calls us to open our eyes to see and to open our hearts and our guts to be moved with deep compassion, as well.
So I’d like to leave us all with a challenge from St. Louis pastor and Black Lives Matter activist Rev. Traci Blackmon, who said in her sermon at the Justice Conference that “we have a moral obligation to see…[to] notice who is invisible.” That we must ask ourselves: “who are those that are missing, who are those that we do not see? … The challenge for us is to see what we’ve been conditioned not to see… Wherever the marginalized are not seen, heard or cared for, our covenant is broken… [Therefore], look into the eyes of another of God’s creation… past their skin, past their gender, past their sexuality. Look until you see Jesus.”